Minnesota-based Rendell supporters get $201M state contract

| Thursday, May 21, 2009

HARRISBURG — Top officials with a Minnesota education company that won a $201 million Pennsylvania contract employ a Harrisburg lobbyist and donated $22,000 in campaign money to Gov. Ed Rendell, records show.

Rendell's administration last week awarded the contract to Data Recognition Corp. to develop high school graduation exams, though the Legislature hasn't approved such exams.

Senate Majority Whip Jane Orie, R-McCandless, who opposes the exams, said the donations to Rendell in 2006-2007 by top officials of Data Recognition smacked of "pay-to-play" politics, creating the appearance at least of favoritism to a contributor. She and other Senate GOP leaders have demanded Rendell withdraw from the contract, saying it is "fiscally irresponsible" to proceed while the state faces a $3 billion budget deficit.

But Pam Enstad, director of communications for Data Recognition, said the company won the contract through competitive selection. She said there was no connection between the contract and campaign donations.

Chuck Ardo, a spokesman for Rendell, denied the campaign money played a role. He said the state Department of Education, not the governor, awarded the contract. The agency is under the governor's control.

The company has held another contract with the Education Department since 1992, when the late Robert P. Casey was governor. It administers the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment standardized test under a contract that pays Data Recognition about $30 million per year.

"(Rendell) had no role in PDE's decision-making on awarding the contract," Ardo said. The education department signed a seven-year contract with Data Recognition to develop the graduation exams, a model curriculum, teacher training program and to monitor student achievement in 10 subject areas.

The $22,000 is a mere fraction of $84 million Rendell raised in two gubernatorial campaigns, in 2002 and 2006. Russell Hagen, chairman of Data Recognition's board, donated $16,000. Susan Engeleiter, company president and CEO, donated $6,000. Overall, company officials gave $28,000 to state officials from 2003 to 2007, including some GOP lawmakers.

Rendell recently told reporters he would sign legislation to curb "pay-to-play," where large campaign donors win state contracts, often without bidding. Republican lawmakers have criticized Rendell for awarding no-bid contracts to campaign donors.

Since Republican Gov. Tom Ridge was governor, Data Recognition has employed Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney, a premier Harrisburg lobbying firm. The firm assists the company primarily with information about education legislation and politics at the Capitol. The company's officials working with the Department of Education developed their own relationships and reputation, insiders say.

Buchanan Ingersoll has "advised us on state procurement rules and laws so that DRC works according to established competitive procurement procedures," Enstad said. She said "most of the interaction on the state testing contracts has been with DRC staff who provide professional testing services all over the United States."

Buchanan Ingersoll employs David Sweet, who was Rendell's 2002 campaign manager. Scott Baker, a former top official with the Ridge administration, handles the lobbying firm's work with Data Recognition.

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